Heroes in the Tower
Stories about air traffic controllers that you probably didn’t see on the evening news.
- By Michael Klesius
- Air & Space magazine, September 2011
(Page 3 of 4)
“Frontier 820, you’re seven miles from the final approach fix; turn left heading zero-four-zero. Maintain three thousand until established on the localizer, cleared ILS [instrument landing system] Runway One Left Approach.” A moment later, the airplane touched down safely.
Hermsdorfer credits her training as an air traffic controller for the U.S. Air Force. “You have an emergency every day in the Air Force, it seems,” she says. “Flameouts and things like that. But this one by far was the scariest I’d ever had. Just because of the pilot’s voice, I could tell it was more serious than anything I’d ever dealt with. I can’t recall ever hearing anybody say ‘Mayday’ before.”
Once the airplane was on the ground, she still had two hours left of her eight-hour shift. “You just kinda get back to work,” she says. “When something like this happens, you’ve got to kind of push it to the back of your mind and keep on going. I still had those other two that needed to come in right behind him. So I just kept working.”
For her cool, Hermsdorfer won the 2010 Archie League Medal of Safety Award for the central region.
THE DAY THE PILOT DIED
“I’ve gotta declare an emergency. My pilot’s…unconscious. I need help up here.” The desperate call came to Miami Center on Easter Sunday in April 2009. The pilot of a Super King Air 200, no. N559DW, had fallen unconscious and soon died, apparently from a heart attack, while flying four passengers from Marco Island, Florida, to Jackson, Mississippi. The voice belonged to Doug White, who sat in the other front seat. “My pilot’s deceased…. I need help.” With White’s wife and two teenage daughters in the back, White took over the controls of the King Air, which was climbing rapidly. Though trained to fly single-engine airplanes, White was not certified in the larger, twin-engine turboprop King Air.
Miami Center controller Jessica Anaya immediately rerouted all airplanes in the area. Nathan Henkels and Lisa Grimm began to instruct White, helping him deactivate the autopilot to stop his ascent. “You find me the longest, widest runway you can, ma’am,” White said, and Grimm obliged, sending him toward the Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers. It had a 12,000-foot runway, which served as a backup landing site for the space shuttle. “November niner Delta Whiskey, just so you know what we’re doing here, we’re gonna get you down to one-one thousand,” said Grimm. “We’re gonna give you a turn to the west, we’re gonna hand you off to Fort Myers Approach….”
At Fort Myers, controller Brian Norton was about to head home when his supervisor called him back. Dan Favio, another controller, was eating lunch when he heard what was happening and joined Norton. They asked White if he was on autopilot or flying manually. “Me and the good Lord [are] hand-flying this,” said White, a touch of panic in his southern drawl.
Favio, 29, pulled out his cell phone and called a friend, Kari Sorenson, in Danbury, Connecticut. A pilot and flight instructor, Sorenson had thousands of hours in the King Air 200. He pulled out his manuals and told Favio how to configure airspeed, flaps, and trim to prepare for landing. Favio related the details to Norton, and Norton passed them to White. One of the final instructions Norton related: “Nine Delta Whiskey, the last instruction I got, when you get to 150 knots, the flap control will say ‘Approach flaps’ on there. Just select that detent when you get to 150 knots.” About 30 minutes after the crisis began, White landed at Fort Myers. Norton and Favio handed him off to Carey Meadows at ground control, who helped White shut down the airplane.
“You cannot train for this as a pilot or a controller,” says Doug White today. “That’s why they’re so great, because they’re so resourceful. They did stuff that’s not in the book. It’s like being in combat together.”
The six controllers—Anaya, Grimm, Henkels, Favio, Norton, and Meadows—won the southern region’s Archie League Medal of Safety Award for 2009, as well as the President’s Award for the best flight assist in the country. White had his own plaques made for them, and he and Sorenson were invited to the awards ceremony, where they too were honored.
Favio had not memorized Sorenson’s number, but had programmed it into his phone. Shortly after the save, the phone died. “I came out of the radar room and called Kari back to let him know that they did land,” says Favio. “That was the last call that phone made. It didn’t get wet. It didn’t get dropped. It didn’t get anything. It just—that was it.” The next day he headed to a cell phone store. “I went in there to get a battery and came out with a new phone.” The first number he programmed in was Sorenson’s.
THE BIG ONE
On the morning of September 11, 2001, 55-year-old Ben Sliney drove to work at the Federal Aviation Administration’s Air Traffic Control System Command Center in Herndon, Virginia. The center tracks the nation’s airspace and has ultimate authority over all towers, terminal approach controls, and en route centers—stations that pass a flight from one region of the country to the next. “It was a crystal-clear sky,” he recalls. “I’m thinking to myself Good, I won’t have problems with the New York airports. Visibility and ceilings were unlimited from the tip of Florida to the tip of Maine…. I said, This’ll be a great shift.”
Sliney had left air traffic control a few times to practice law, most recently at the beginning of the 1990s. In late 2000 he again became a controller. “I had come back three or four times,” he says in a New York accent. He took a seat in Herndon as a rank-and-file operations guy. “I’d been out for 10 years. I said, ‘Let me be a journeyman for a while.’ I wanted to get all the equipment and tools under my belt.” In a year, he was promoted to national operations manager, the top decision maker on the floor. Sliney’s first day on that job was Tuesday, September 11.
At 8:46 a.m. he was on a routine conference call when an airplane struck the north tower of the World Trade Center. Sketchy information followed: American Airlines flight 11, out of Boston, had shut off its transponder, and a flight attendant on board had been stabbed. The military liaison at the command center suggested putting CNN up on one of the screens at the front of the room; the cable network reported that a small airplane had hit the tower.